“Well”, said my questionner, “all this stuff about workflow is just fine, but what we really need to know now is where this goes next. So lets just imagine that we integrate all the data into all the systems, and everyone on every screen has all they need to be more productive, make better and more cost-effective decisions and to be wholly compliant with all relevant regulation and best practice. What happens next?”  There is, I have come to know, a certain class of manager (possibly deprived of breast feeding at too young an age), whose cruel sport is seeking to confound itinerant  consultants with all this “next” guff. Hopefully, I had been thinking, workflow and the semantic web would see me out. But you have to answer the question, so I looked at the ceiling in what I hoped was an image of wisdom and muttered something about intelligent systems. And I ignored him when he challenged me to show him one.

But it was a bit worrying. I guess the answer is that far more of the tasks over which we slave will become subject to machine to machine communication and an increasing range of  Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. I remember when AI was seen as the “always there, never delivers” technology (just like GIS in the 1980-1990s). Yet GIS in the broadest sense gave us spatial location and even SatNav. AI is yet to hit the point of large scale integration with what we do with content and data in solutions, systems and services. And I was worrying about how little I knew in this area when I bumped into Sir Isaac Newton’s dog, Diamond.

I bumped into him in a March 2012 paper published by Dr Glenda Eoyang, Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute (www.hsdinstitute.org). She is an expert in adaptive systems, and having pointed out how comparatively easy it is to learn and assess learning of something like Sir Isaac’s equations, she then turned to his dog. Here was a learning problem of a different type, as your experiences of the dog altered your learning perspectives and your learning had to become “adaptive”:

“On the other hand, when you learn Newton’s dog, the expectation is that you develop the ability to 1) recognize Diamond; 2) interact with him; and 3) get better at recognizing and interacting with him over time. The assumption is that teachers, too, recognize and interact with Diamond, and that their performance continually improves through a process of life-long learning. The purpose of learning the dog is adaptation. The measure of success is adaptive capacity. The best pedagogy is adaptation, and adaptive action is also the best way to assess performance. Learning Newton’s dog is about engaging with an ever-changing environment in ways that are creative, courageous, sustainable, and sensitive. When the goal of education is to prepare the younger generation for a complex and emergent and unpredictable future, we must teach them Newton’s dog.”

Quite so. And here, clever questionner, is part of your answer. The next leap forward looks like it will be in education, as we begin to tackle personalised learning en masse. And that takes me back to Knewton Technologies (www.knewton.com), whose deal with Pearson last November will lead to some 10 million users of MyLab/Mastering (mostly US college students) having coursework which adapts to their pace and their needs. So they get a test, and the machine does them some diagnostics and sets them off on a new route (or rote)? No, the system is continuously adaptive, it tracks everything they read and write, and it continually adjusts and resets, not just for strengths and weaknesses, but for each individual’s unique learning style. No less a learner than Bill Gates has praised the two first year college maths courses launched last year at the Arizona State University, and Pearson and Founders Fund led the new investment round which raised $33 m in the fall of 2011 for Jose Ferreira’s brilliant start-up.

It is unlikely of course that  Knewton will be the only answer. One man’s proprietory algorthym is another man’s challenge, as we have learnt many times in the last 22 years. But what interests me at the moment is that our first approaches to mass customization and personlization in depth should be in education. In education we know for sure that even if we try to teach a class of 30 from the front, a certain percentage will be bored because progress is too slow, and a larger group will be bored because they lost the thread. For a handful the teacher will hit the mark. So we continually, and rightly, stress that learners should learn for themselves and collaboratively with other learners, and the teachers’ role is to moderate, not drive, the process.

And yet, customization does not yet get a look in elsewhere. We try to build workflow as if every company was the same just because it has the same end objectives in terms of revenues or margins. Yet cultures and the ability to improve performance are idiosyncratic and often unique. But we want to sell a “productized” service, not a solution per client, and it may be that the technology of the classroom is in fact taking us towards supplying individual needs without re-assembling the coding. Maybe, indeed, adaptability becomes the new service offering, down the road that takes us ever closer to AI – penetrated services.

Thats All, Folks! There now follows a short intermission before I return in October.


I can remember my excitement on first encountering PLC (Practical Law Company, http://uk.practicallaw.com). My five years as a law publisher had taught me two things. The way lawyers described their work was very different from the work they did and from which they derived the bulk of their fees. And the stalwart group of excellent lawyers working as editors in my own office were of little use to me if I wanted to find out what lawyers did for a living, since their backgrounds were academic and their interests were in the law itself, not the far less interesting dreary practice of the same. So PLC was a shocking revelation: built by practitioners for practitioners, almost merciless in its attention to practical detail, it provided the safety net that ensured that the right forms had been completed in the right way, and that just enough legal expertise was available to steer practitioners whose nightmare was coming face to face with the naked words of a statute without being told what they meant. While the great players at Westlaw (Thomson Reuters) and Lexis (Reed Elsevier) concentrated on the lucrative pastures of legal research for litigation, PLC built its niche, and did so in a country where the avoidance of litigation was a primary legal objective. Then they exported the concept of process by process guidance to the US, where they have had a very considerable success despite a slow start. Now the upstart competitor is a mature and profitable player, and an acquisition target for its larger peers and many others besides.

Yet this is still a competitive game. Markets like more than one player in each niche, even if they do not want three. In the first decade of PLC, Lexis and WestLaw have busied themselves with almost everything else – law practice marketing, practice management systems etc, etc – almost as if they knew the difficulties of taking PCL on directly and shied away from the challenge. But the workflow processes of legal practitioners – the junk of forms, procedures, due diligence, compliance, precedent – that attends any legal process is still the high ground. Litigation is important, and being able to research online is vital, but it is not the oil that legal wheels need in the everyday world. And as the downturn moves the focus to cost and time, law practices seek to hold price levels and even reduce them by ensuring that more and more process is done by less expensive, newly qualified, even paralegal staff members.

So market conditions are fairly good for an attack on PLC and a new look at law practice workflow. And the new competitor entering its UK market has a tried and tested look. LexisPSL (www.trialpsl.com) is a completely new take  on Professional Support, and to create and maintain it Lexis have recruited a team of over 100 practitioner lawyers. I had the privilege of an up close demo last week, and found myself looking at a service that certainly emulates all the qualities that I associate with PLC – and something more. Lexis has long had some clever software in-house (remember VisualFiles, which we all heralded as the tool for jobs like this?) but it never before moved its concentration from law as research and authoritative commentary for long enough to see the workflow woods from the research trees. Now, looking at LexisPSL, you can see how  all of that authoritative material can act as a support to the workflow interface. 25 LexisPSL practice areas are launched (including key areas like Banking and Finance, IP and IT, Corporate, Dispute Resolution, Employment, and Property). We can now see the shape of what is emerging here. The strategy has been to match PLC up front with service elements that perform similar functions, and to back everything with the potential deeper dig implied by LexisLibrary. So here are over 2000 high value precedents, here are the practice module quick tips and here are the workflow models which show you how to create seamless process to complete, for example, a sale and purchase agreement that complies with the regulations and with best practice. The bits that go beyond PLC at present are also clear; you can move seamlessly through to All Englands, to Halsbury, to Tolley’s tax guides or anything else from the Lexis publication cycle  if you want or need to do so. And the process automation is beginning to heat up nicely – over 300 of the precedents have automated features. Complete a one-time questionnaire and its data will be automatically seeded  from it into any of a multiplicity of documents that you may have to produce in the Share Purchase Agreement or Asset Purchase Agreement suites. Use the Companies House link and draw down formal company descriptors into your forms as you compile them. LexisPSL claim that some 80% of the time of compiling standard documents can be saved in ways like this.

So where do we go from here? My guess is that workflow in law markets, as elsewhere, will become ever more collaborative. As competition between PLC and LexisPSL heats up, we shall see further third party data sources contributing. Lawyers use more non-legal information than law content, so I expect to see client status checking, PEP compliance, money-laundering checks, credit referencing and other data brought into play. And those forms will get more automated and compliance checking software will be used to validate them. And the junction between this work and the firm’s own precedents and data resources will need to be developed. And beyond that? Well, this market will go tablet/mobile and, given its dictation background, voice service driven. And CPD needs to be built into these services so that practitioners can learn on the job, using webinars (largely in place) and video tutorials,  and the results audited.

It is now possible to see a framework for a competitive future here. LexisPSL have a market to win, and are addressing it with commendable vigour. PLC will benefit from the competition. Thomson Reuters may reflect that they have much of the third party data which PLC may need, which may in turn make the high asking price which PLC’s owners have traditionally maintained easier to consider. Whatever happens, LexisPSL is a very worthy product to join a long history of innovation in law markets.